Bringing back good old days of logging difficult

Of the Associated Press

GRANTS PASS — Nothing came to symbolize the difficulty of bringing back the good old days of logging in Oregon like the Bush administration's plan to boost timber production on 3,750 square miles of federal land in 18 counties, an area about three times the size of Rhode Island.

Big promises of logs and revenue for timber counties won the Western Oregon Plan Revision the nickname of “The Whopper,” spoken affectionately by timber interests and contemptuously by conservationists. But after five years of planning, it all came crashing down. Unable to pass muster under the Endangered Species Act, it was withdrawn by the Obama administration in 2009.

Now, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is working on a kinder and gentler approach. Though some people are calling it “Whopper Junior,” the BLM pointedly is not. In a preliminary planning document released this month, the BLM's state director, Jerome E. Perez, said the new approach will be based on what the public wants, science, the law and on the goals of healthy forests, not board feet of timber.

“These 2.5 million acres have an important role to the social, economic and ecological wellbeing of Western Oregon, as well as to the greater American public,” he wrote. “In an effort to try to change the dialogue, besides changing how we engage the public, I want to focus our discussions around outcomes, not outputs.”

The BLM says it will finish the new plan by fall 2015. It has been asking tribes, conservation groups, counties and the timber industry what they want from the lands. The agency has hired a facilitator to make sure they keep in close touch with fish and wildlife scientists at other agencies — a requirement of the Endangered Species Act that was not followed in the first go-round.

With the details still to be worked out, conservationists warily welcomed the new approach. But the timber industry and some county officials worry the new plan won't allow the amount of timber production they think is necessary to improve the financial health of Oregon's timber country, some of whose counties are near bankruptcy.

“It is difficult. There is a lot of history. And it's a complex issue,” said Mark Brown, a conservation biologist who is managing the project for BLM.

The stakes are high. Spotted owls continue to decline and some timber counties that depend on a share of federal logging revenues are struggling to pay for basic services, like jails and sheriff's patrols.

Timber has been a leading part of Oregon's economy since the days leading up to World War II, when it became the nation's leading timber producer. But the industry is a shadow of what it was before the 1990s, when logging on national forests was cut by 90 percent to protect the northern spotted owl and salmon.

After 30 years of fighting, the issues remain the same. The timber industry argues for more logging to produce logs, generate jobs and prevent wildfires. Conservation groups argue for less logging to prevent wildfires, protect fish and wildlife habitat, and maintain clean water.

The O&C lands are named for the Oregon & California Railroad, which got land in the 1860s to finance the railroad. After the company went bust, the government in 1916 took back a checkerboard of one-mile squares interspersed with private timberlands.

A special law enacted in 1937 governs management of the lands, an early attempt at managing federal lands for multiple uses, including clean water and recreation. They became a cash cow for the counties. Unlike the national forests, which share 25 percent of logging revenues with counties to help pay for schools and roads, the O&C lands share 75 percent, with no restrictions.

During the 1980s, BLM was selling 1 billion board feet of timber a year, producing so much money that some O&C counties did not have to assess property taxes. But in the 1990s, conservation groups won lawsuits demanding BLM and the U.S. Forest Service stop cutting old growth forests where salmon and spotted owls lived.

To settle the lawsuits, the Clinton administration produced the Northwest Forest Plan, which cut logging 90 percent to protect fish and wildlife. The O&C lands now produce a fifth of the timber they used to. That means less money for the O&C counties. Congress created a safety net for the counties that paid them a subsidy to make up for the lost logging revenues while they developed new sources of revenue. But the amount was steadily ramped down, and now has run out. Renewal is uncertain and voters have been loath to raise their own taxes to make up the difference.

The timber industry and the counties recognize there is no chance of hitting 1 billion board feet again. Even the original “Whopper” promised only half that. They view the 500 billion mark as a minimum and worry the new BLM plan won't produce the logs or revenues from timber they would like to see.

“More credence is being given ecological values, wildlife species and recreation, rather than the main emphasis being what the O&C Act calls for, which is sustainable timber supply,” said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group.

He and Doug Robertson, a Douglas County commissioner and president of the Association of O&C Counties, have pinned their hopes on Congress enacting proposed legislation that splits the O&C lands in two, with half going to timber production without the constraints of federal environmental laws, to produce $100 million for the counties.

Conservation groups are wary, but encouraged to see BLM taking a different approach. And they have little sympathy for the counties, noting they could solve their fiscal crises by raising taxes to levels that are still below the state average, and that industry automation is trimming jobs even as production increases.

Doug Heiken of the conservation group Oregon Wild said the O&C lands already produce more than a third of the timber of all the federal lands under the Northwest Forest Plan, and producing any more would threaten a key habitat bridge for wildlife between the Coast Range and the Cascades.

BLM has made a point of not promising anything in terms of timber or county revenues. The formal statement of what BLM hopes to achieve calls for large connected blocks of mature forests, clean water, conservation of threatened and endangered species, restoring the natural role of fire in the ecosystem, and a sustained yield of timber.

That all points to some level of timber less than the industry and the counties want.

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